The wildlife of Indiana has changed as has its natural features. It's hard now to visualize herds of bison once roaming our Hoosier prairies or elk in the edge of the forests that once covered the state. Add in black bear, panthers, wolves and a number of other species and you get a picture of how much our wildlife has changed.
The prairies of western Indiana were where the bison, better known to the first settlers as buffalo, occurred in sizable numbers. A few also were found in the forested section of our state. Added to the native bison were the ones from the prairie lands of Illinois that traveled across Hoosierland to reach the large salt licks in Kentucky.
These bison in their migration to the salt licks eroded the path of their journey into a road-like depression that came to be known as the Buffalo Trace. This bison-worn highway extended from south of Vincennes where the animals swam across the Wabash River to the Ohio River at present day New Albany, Clarksville and Jeffersonville. Here they once again had to swim a large river. The trail then continued on across Kentucky to the Big Bone Lick and other salt and mineral seeps in the Blue Grass State.
The main trace followed along the path of present Highway 150, but other paths were in Dubois County east of Haysville, where you can still see traces of the route in a few locations. Other areas in southern Indiana have locations where the bison once lived and traveled. The Buffalo Flat north of Jasper is one area and another is in Pike County north of Otwell.
A visitor to the Ouiatenon area near modern day Lafayette said, "Nothing is visible to the eye but prairies full of buffaloes."
While Indiana did not have the vast herds of bison that once roamed the western plains, it did have a rather large native and transit population. An early traveler had the following to say about the bison, "The amazing herd of buffaloes which resort thither by their size and shape fill the traveler with amazement and terror, especially when he beholds the prodigious roads they have made from all quarters."
Going on he wrote, "The vast space of land around the salt springs desolated as by a ravaging enemy, and the hills reduced to plains by the pawing of their feet. I have heard a hunter assert he saw about a thousand buffaloes at the Blue Licks in Kentucky at one time."
This sounds more like the bison in the plains of western United States than it does here in Indiana. It would have been something to have seen this vast assemblage not only out west but also here on our Hoosier prairies.
While southwest Indiana had some prairie, north of Terre Haute there were some very large tracts of tall grass prairie. It was this region in northwestern Indiana where the largest herds of bison were found.
Native Americans used them for a food source, but they only killed them to satisfy their needs. When the white men entered Indiana it was a different story. They killed not only for the meat and hides of the bison, but also apparently just for the fun and the sport of the kill.
There are a number of accounts of bison killed not only for food, but left untouched to rot. As can be expected, the Indians found this to be a terrible waste of the animal they valued to help feed their women and children.
Not many realize this occurred here in Indiana as well as out west. It seems poachers and those who kill just for the sport was a problem in the past as it is today.
By 1810, the bison was all but gone from Indiana. A few might have held on a few years in northwestern Indiana, but here in the south only a few were left as early as 1808. The saga of the demise of the bison of the western plains has been well documented, but the slaughter of our Hoosier bison has been given little, if any, attention.
More on the extirpation of our Hoosier wildlife will be featured in future columns.
Harold Allison is a retired postal worker. He makes his home in Cumback, which does not have a post office.